What Does Undergraduate Mean?

by Stephanie Thurrott

Whether you’re in the process of applying to colleges or you’re already enrolled, you’ve probably heard people use the term “undergraduate” or “undergrad.” Understanding the terminology that surrounds your education can help you navigate your journey with assurance—but what does undergraduate mean, exactly, and where do you go from there?

What Does Undergraduate Mean?

An undergraduate is a person who’s on the path to earning a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years to complete. When people use the phrase “college degree,” they’re usually referring to an undergraduate degree. A bachelor’s degree can prepare you to enter the workforce in a variety of fields and pave the way to graduate or professional school.

What Are the Different Types of Undergraduate Degrees?

Undergraduate degrees include:

Associate Degree

These degrees generally take two years of full-time study, or 60 credit hours, to complete. They’re often offered at community colleges and technical colleges as well as some four-year colleges and universities. With an associate degree, you can start a career in an area that requires more than a high school education, gain skills to grow in your current field, or transfer credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years, or 120 credit hours, to complete. You’re considered an undergraduate until you earn your bachelor’s degree.

What If You’re a Current College Student?

If you earned an associate degree or are currently working toward earning your bachelor’s degree, you’re considered an undergraduate.

The four years of college have their own designations:

  • Freshmen are first-year undergraduates, sometimes called “first years.” They typically take more general or foundational courses.
  • Sophomores are in their second year of college and are generally finishing their foundational courses. Freshmen and sophomores are also called underclassmen, indicating they’re in the earlier part of their studies.
  • Juniors are in their third year of college and take more high-level courses targeted to their majors.
  • Seniors are in their fourth and final year of college and are completing the coursework and other requirements to earn their degrees. Juniors and seniors are also called upperclassmen.

Of course, not everyone completes their bachelor’s degree in four years. These terms may also refer to how many credits you’ve earned. For example, if you’ve earned 30 to 60 credits, you would be considered a sophomore.

What Are the Different Types of Postgraduate Degrees?

In some cases, you may want to continue your education after earning your undergraduate degree. Postgraduate (or simply “graduate”) degrees include:

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree generally builds on the subject area you majored in as an undergraduate. This degree typically takes one to three years to complete. While you’re studying for this degree, you’re often called a graduate student.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree, or doctorate, is the most advanced degree you can earn in an area of study. These degrees are often research-focused and require a dissertation, which is an in-depth research project. People who have doctoral degrees are considered experts in their fields. Depending on the focus, it can take four to eight years to earn. The PhD (doctor of philosophy) is the most common doctoral degree, but you can earn this degree in a wide range of fields, from architecture (DArch) to theology (ThD).

People usually progress from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s and then to a doctorate, though it’s sometimes possible to go from a bachelor’s to a doctoral degree. You’re called a doctoral student or a PhD student while you’re studying for this degree.

Professional Doctorate

A professional doctorate degree takes at least two years to complete (though often longer) and prepares you to work in a specific profession. Doctors (MD or DO), dentists (DDS), physical therapists (DPT), lawyers (JD), ministers (DMin), and many other professionals earn these degrees.

How Can You Prepare for Advanced Studies?

If you know you want a career in a field where you need an advanced degree, you can start preparing right away. If you’re still in the process of choosing a college, you may even be able to find a program that’s designed with your final degree in mind.

You may also discover your path when you’re already enrolled in college. As soon as you choose a career that requires an advanced degree, start looking into admissions requirements. Most programs require you to complete certain courses to apply, and some specialized programs may have their own tests, like the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) for medical school or the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for law school. Working with an advisor can help ensure you’re taking the right courses to prepare you for postgraduate admissions and studies.

Designing Your Path to Success

Whatever career path you’re considering, higher education at Azusa Pacific University can help you get there. Learn more about the school’s 200-plus online and on-campus programs, ranging from undergraduate to doctoral degrees.